by Emily Carson

As a women in her 30s who still sleeps with her closet light on, I am no stranger to fear. Of course, some fears are more rational than others, and my fear of the dark admittedly falls into the irrational category. Is a giant green closet monster really going to be deterred by a lightbulb? Probably not. Is a thief really going to turn around after seeing a sliver of light peeking out from under my bedroom door? Doubtful. Yet without the light on, I can’t sleep. And so my room stays illuminated every hour of the night, and my fear of the dark remains.

What are you afraid of?
Fear is a mysterious life companion, isn’t it? Some of us are more influenced by its persuasive charms than others. I am afraid more often than I’d like to admit. I’m most afraid of being unlovable. I’m terrified that if I ever get to the core of who I really am and I share that person with the world, she won’t be loved … or even liked. Through conversations with many other young adult women (and men, too), I know I’m not alone in this fear. I’m also afraid of tragedy and sickness and wrinkles. The list goes on and on and mine is embarrassingly long.

Some say that at the core of it all, human beings are most afraid of death. Or we’re afraid of being alone. Or, perhaps, we‘re afraid of failing.

What are all the other human beings on planet earth most afraid of? I’m not so sure that can be boiled down to a perfect, one-size-fits-all answer. I’ve read many thoughts on the topic. Some say that at the core of it all, human beings are most afraid of death. Or we’re afraid of being alone. Or, perhaps, we‘re afraid of failing. All of these answers are probably partially true but not complete. I posted an informal survey online to get some feedback on the topic, and the lists of deepest fears were immensely broad and impossible to generalize.

This exercise led me to conclude that fears are both universal and specific. There are some possibilities in life that scare almost everyone, and there are other, more personal fears that bubble up only for some. It appears that when it comes to confronting fear, in some shape or form, we’re all on this journey together.

Left unchecked, fear has a very consuming power. When we let our anxieties run the show, the world quickly becomes a very hostile, energy-draining place. Our brothers and sisters in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are still rebuilding after hurricanes. The threat of terrorism exists. The threat of nuclear war. Joblessness and insurance coverage. If we’re looking to feel afraid, there is no shortage of material to work with. But if we’re looking for another option, perhaps there is no better time to kick fear in the pants and start looking through a different lens.

I used to think the answer to overcoming my fears and worries was to force myself to “become brave.” I assumed pure willpower would be enough to make me a fearless person. I even created a “30 Days Braver” plan in which I was going to make myself do something outside of my comfort zone every day for a month. This approach was not for me. I made it to Day 2 before changing the plan to “30 Days Inspired.” Instead of one stunt a day, I challenged myself to look for daily inspiration through gardening, museums and long walks. Right away, I realized that my true goal for the project hadn’t been to start jumping out of planes and climbing pyramids. My goal was to start looking at the world in a different way, to start seeing life as an opportunity instead of a trap. That month taught me that life is created to be relished, savored and explored much more than feared.

But like I said, I still sleep with the light on, so I’m no master of overcoming fears yet! We’re all works in progress, and I’m thankful for the power of community. We can lift each other up; we can challenge and encourage one another as we confront our fears and live out our lives in peace and love. What follows are a few tools that are helping me along the path of fear confrontation. I hope they will be useful to you, too! My prayer for you, dear sisters, is this: May fear never deprive you of life, may life always lead you to hope, and may hope eternally fill your spirit. Amen.

Name your fears

Many of our greatest fears lose their power and control over us when we name them! Write them down. Share them with a friend. Paint a picture. It’s up to you. Watch as fear’s power begins to evaporate.

Take time to pause
My wise mother dishes out this great advice on a regular basis. Sometimes my anxieties take over and I forget to take slow, deep breaths. When fear starts to consume, hit pause. Take five deep breaths. When I remember to do this, it almost always shifts my attention to more productive thinking.

Pray fear away
Here’s a gem! Prayer! I love that there are basically no rules with prayer. It’s just a conversation with God and it can take any form. Prayer calms fears.

Stick with it, but don’t get stuck
Exposing and confronting our fears is a lifelong process. Sorry folks, there are no shortcuts. Stick with it. Remember that you are never alone on the journey. Find ways to affirm yourself for working hard and overcoming your fears.

The Rev. Emily Carson is a curator of curiosity. She currently serves as director of communications for the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA. She got married in August and is savoring this new season of life with her husband, Justin, and their dog, Finn.

This article first appeared in the June 2011 issue.